We all have exultant moments: memories made to be bottled up, then uncorked and sniffed during dimmer times. In mine, I am in Trinidad. The sun is rising. I am drinking rum, dancing my way through the streets of Port of Spain during the staple of all Caribbean Carnivals, J’Ouvert: a dawn-till-lunchtime parade during which revelers smear themselves in many things — paint, oil, cocoa, mud. Vanity and identity are replaced by unadulterated joy in simply, magically being there during a sublimely over-the-top ritual.
That’s my pitch, the spiel I give about why one ought not let life pass without attending at least one Caribbean Carnival. Vacation timing is no excuse, because Carnivals are held throughout the year from island to island, which means that — oh, how this glorious fact brings solace during stressful times — whatever month it is, odds are it’s Carnival, or soon-to-be Carnival, somewhere.
The traditional season is February, coinciding with Lent, the 40-day penitence period before Easter. That’s because most Caribbean Carnivals share a history that stretches back to the 18th century. As European colonizers heralded Lent with sumptuous masked balls, African slaves staged their own versions of such reveling, lampooning lascivious masters and incorporating West African traditions — drumming, stick fighters, stilt dancers known as moko jumbies — into the mix.
Today, Carnival is a nexus of past and present: The gravitas of historical rituals and classic Carnival characters collides with modern-day hedonism. Its climax is a parade during which celebrants “play mas” (or masquerade), which involves dressing up, joining a mas band and dancing down the road all day. This is typically preceded by weeks of festivities, including J’Ouvert (from the French for “day opens”), children’s Carnivals, calypso competitions and king-and-queen competitions displaying handmade costumes and floats.
But the similarities end there. Just as every island basks in its own vibe, every Carnival is a singular bacchanal, complete with distinct rituals and island-specific soundtracks. It’s a rare time when the line between being a local and a tourist grows magically thin.
Below, a calendar of Carnivals.
DEC. 26, JAN. 1
Why should you do Christmas and New Year’s — again — when you can do Carnival? In fact, you can do all three in the Bahamas. The celebration, known as Junkanoo, is staged on various Bahamian islands (Nassau hosts the biggest) and kicks off before dawn on Dec. 26, then resurfaces in the wee hours of New Year’s Day. What began as a slave holiday during Christmas time is now an all-out extravaganza. The sights are dazzling: floats, masks and feathers more vibrant than the Caribbean Sea, itself a brilliant backdrop. Sounds, though, steal the show. Traditional instruments like conch-shell horns; “goombay” drums made of goatskin and oil barrels; cow bells; scrapers made from washboards and spoons serve up Bahamian “rake and scrape” music, which sounds like the Caribbean version of, well, a hoedown.
Stay: The Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort (sheratonnassau.com, 242-327-6000) is convenient to the parade route, and it offers a stunning stretch of beach and modern rooms. Rates start at $269.
Do: The Junkanoo Expo, 242-356-2731, on Nassau’s waterfront is a little slice of Carnival behind glass: a museum devoted to the history of the festival.
The Trinidad Carnival, the largest and most elaborate of all Caribbean carnivals, might as well be an Olympic sport: How many sleepless, liquor-fueled nights can you withstand? How many miles of dance can your thighs endure? How gleefully immodest can you allow your costumed self to be? Oh, but it’s worth it; the concerts, the steel pan performances and the parties are sumptuous. Most famous among them are the cricketer Brian Lara’s event, held on the majestic grounds of his house in Port of Spain, where tickets hover around $200 and are generally sold out before you can say “wicket.” You’ll see classic Carnival characters everywhere — the Pierrot Grenade performs rhymed political speeches; jab jabs (from French patois for “devil”) come in red or blue; the Dame Lorraine costume caricatures 18th-century aristocrats. The best part? You can forever boast that you did it.
Stay: The gleaming Hyatt Regency Trinidad (trinidad.hyatt.com, 868-623-2222) is Carnival central. Anything you need, whether it is a post-parade masseuse, a costume tailor or hangover eats, you can find it there. Rooms from $429. For this season, however, the Hyatt is already sold out for Carnival weekend, so check http://gotrinidadandtobago.com/ for other alternatives.
Do: Join a mas band. Tribe is the most popular one, but you might have to sell your first born to get in. Information: carnivaltribe.com.
This island’s Carnival is so small, intimate and traditional, you’ll wonder what century you’re in. That’s the beauty of it. Dominica, a pristine, untouristy eco-heaven, prides itself on staying true to Carnival’s roots. At Mas Dominik, as it is known in Creole, women clad in beads and bikinis are outnumbered by sensays, whose name and origin come from the Twi-speaking people of West Africa. With their costumes made from paper and cloth scraps, sensays look like papier-mache bigfoots, dancing to a Zouk-like music known as bouyon. Afterward, scrub off the paint in one of the island’s many natural hot springs just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Roseau, the island’s capital. An added attraction: French islands (and those, like Dominica, that underwent long periods of French rule) devote Ash Wednesday (on Feb. 13) to an event known as Tewe Vaval, during which a giant straw mannequin representing the king of Carnival is burned in a ceremonial festival. It signifies the end of Carnival, cleanses the island of bad luck and lets revelers keep on jamming.
Stay: It doesn’t have the eco-luxury experience of the better-known properties on the island, but the historic Fort Young Hotel (fortyounghotel.com, 767-448-5000) is right in Roseau — and very Carnival-friendly. Rates start at $125.
Do: Get your rhythm right by brushing up on bouyon at numusiczone.com.
The name says it all: Easterval is an exhilarating union between Easter and Carnival on a petite Grenadine island, just off St. Vincent. Easterval was born some 40 years ago when Union Islanders living abroad, returning home for Easter, lent the place a Carnival-like feel, then elected to make it official. There are food fairs, a Miss Easterval competition, sports competitions and the usual soca- and reggae-fueled revelry. But what other Carnival can boast of an Easter bunny parade or — apt for the Grenadines, feted as a prime sailing destination — a two-day regatta?
Stay: The Islander’s Inn (theislandersinn.net, 784-527-0944) is a newly opened, charming beachfront spot. Rooms start at $110 a night.
Do: In between festivals, get on a boat. The nearby Tobago Cays have some of the most stunning snorkeling in the Caribbean — turtles and all.
What do you get when Coney Island meets the Caribbean? Carnival Village in St. Thomas, the hub of the U.S. Virgin Island’s annual festivities. There’s a Ferris wheel. There’s beer. There are happy crowds of all ages. But there’s also Cruzan rum, “johnny cakes” — delicious fried rolls — and local “jam band” music, which has more beats per minute than just about anything on American radio. St. Thomas’ Carnival parade is small enough to feel homey, and it’s also injected with stateside flavor: bands perform choreographed routines as they parade, Rockette-style, down the streets of Charlotte Amalie in glittery costumes and knee-high boots.
Stay: The Ritz-Carlton (ritzcarlton.com/stthomas, 340-775-3333) is, well, a Ritz-Carlton — enough said. From $549.
Do: Join a mas band like the Caribbean Ritual Dancers — but only if you can get there early enough to practice that routine (or get good at faking it). Information: caribbeanritualdancers.com.
Don’t call it Carnival — it’s Crop Over. In Barbados, you don’t “play mas” on carnival day, as you do everywhere else, you “jump” with a band on Kadooment Day. Barbados has its own way of doing things, and you’ll find no quarrel with that because Crop Over, the region’s second-biggest Carnival, is the Caribbean’s hottest summer party. The name denotes its history — the festival has roots in the culmination of a successful sugar harvest, when slaves’ workloads decreased — but Crop Over is as modern a Carnival as they come, rivaling Trinidad in chic parties, barely there costumes and high-voltage musical performances. Since Barbados is a hub for soca music, Crop Over is a Caribbean music lover’s delight: a chance to hear new music rolled out in time for that grand march down the streets of Bridgetown.
Stay: The decor hardly screams “island,” but the Courtyard Bridgetown (marriott.com/hotels/travel/bgicy-courtyard-bridgetown-barbados/, 246-625-0000) is close to the action and filled with lively revelers, which means all Carnival, all the time. From $159.
Do: The Booze Cruise is not actually a cruise but a raucous Sunday beach party at a boatyard in Bridgetown, the island’s capital. What happens there, stays there.